An­other blue rib­bon panel?

L.A. County has to make the case why it needs an­other study of the ef­fects of crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

Whit­tier Po­lice Of­fi­cer Keith Boyer was shot to death Feb. 20 while as­sist­ing at the scene of a traf­fic ac­ci­dent. The fol­low­ing day, the Board of Su­per­vi­sors called for L.A. County of­fi­cials to re­port back within 30 days on the sus­pect’s pre­vi­ous contacts with the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing state­ments by the mo­tion’s coau­thors, Su­per­vi­sors Kathryn Barger and Jan­ice Hahn, pro­vided the sub­text: Tell us whether crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form laws adopted by the Leg­is­la­ture and by vot­ers led to this killing. A sec­ond sub­text was bet­ter hid­den but even more ur­gent: Please tell us this wasn’t a county screw-up.

The sit­u­a­tion was in at least some ways rem­i­nis­cent of the hor­rid 2012 mur­der of four peo­ple in Northridge by Ka Pasasouk, a man with a long record of vi­o­lence and in­sta­bil­ity. At the time, county su­per­vi­sors had been rail­ing against crim­i­nal jus­tice “re­align­ment,” an ini­tia­tive by state gov­ern­ment that gave them re­spon­si­bil­ity for some con­victed crim­i­nals who pre­vi­ously were han­dled by the state. The change, county lead­ers warned, would bring dis­as­ter. Just af­ter the killings, one su­per­vi­sor thun­dered from the dais, “We told you so!”

But with a few weeks of time and in­ves­ti­ga­tion it turned out that, no, nei­ther re­align­ment nor other changes to law were to blame. In­stead, in an ear­lier case against Pasasouk, a deputy district at­tor­ney had mis­tak­enly told the judge that the de­fen­dant was el­i­gi­ble for drug treat­ment in­stead of pri­son de­spite his record. It was a lawyer’s fail­ure to know the law — a ba­sic screw-up by a county worker — that left Pasasouk free and able to kill.

Five years later, many law en­force­ment lead­ers and some county of­fi­cials con­tinue to ar­gue that re­align­ment and now Propo­si­tion 47, which changed drug pos­ses­sion and some prop­erty crimes from felonies to mis­de­meanors, are to blame for an uptick in crime in Los An­ge­les and some other parts of the state. At present there is a stark lack of ev­i­dence to sup­port or re­fute their as­ser­tions, but crit­ics of the new laws raised the is­sue anew when Boyer was slain.

So Barger and Hahn’s mo­tion was wel­come. What hap­pened and why? Who screwed up? Law­mak­ers? Vot­ers? A deputy district at­tor­ney? A pro­ba­tion of­fi­cer? A judge? One might ar­gue that the killing was so shock­ing and the ques­tions so straight­for­ward

that county of­fi­cials ought to have de­manded an­swers within a week in­stead of 30 days, but if a full month was nec­es­sary, so be it.

But 30 days came and went with no re­port, no board vote to ex­tend the dead­line, no pub­lic dis­cus­sion of the sta­tus. Then 60 days passed, 90 days, nearly six months — not a peep.

Mean­while, var­i­ous of­fi­cials as­so­ci­ated with the county be­gan drop­ping hints that par­tic­u­lar prac­tices or poli­cies had been changed, and pre­vi­ous con­cerns dropped and new ones raised, in re­sponse to con­fi­den­tial find­ings in the wake of the Boyer killing. So there was a re­port af­ter all — with­held from the pub­lic and shielded from any kind of scru­tiny that would al­low out­siders to gauge whether the se­cret changes in prac­tice were meant to cor­rect some county screw-up, or that would sup­port or re­fute ar­gu­ments re­gard­ing the role of re­align­ment and Propo­si­tion 47. The county didn’t even of­fi­cially ac­knowl­edge the re­port’s ex­is­tence un­til last week. What’s in the re­port, when was it filed, and why are the an­swers to ba­sic ques­tions about in­for­ma­tion in the pub­lic realm — the sus­pect’s crim­i­nal his­tory, and any risk in­her­ent in county pro­ce­dures — so sen­si­tive?

The county’s cus­tom­ary but un­war­ranted (and pos­si­bly un­law­ful) se­crecy over a mat­ter of such ob­vi­ous pub­lic im­por­tance is the back­drop against which one ought to mea­sure a new mo­tion to be pre­sented by Barger and Hahn on Tues­day. The two su­per­vi­sors are call­ing for the cre­ation of a blue-rib­bon com­mis­sion on pub­lic safety, with a mind­bog­gling 21 mem­bers and a staff made up of the very same hodge-podge of county law en­force­ment and crim­i­nal jus­tice agency rep­re­sen­ta­tives who al­ready have such dif­fi­culty get­ting a han­dle on the sys­tem they are sup­posed to be col­lec­tively op­er­at­ing.

On numer­ous oc­ca­sions, Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers have given law en­force­ment agen­cies and county of­fi­cials a set of march­ing or­ders and pri­or­i­ties on crim­i­nal jus­tice. Los An­ge­les County has im­ple­mented them spot­tily. A Rand re­port this year po­litely de­tailed the county’s ut­ter in­ca­pac­ity to iden­tify even the most ba­sic ex­penses and cost sav­ings as­so­ci­ated with re­align­ment and Propo­si­tion 47, so it is dif­fi­cult to be­lieve a blue-rib­bon com­mis­sion can get to the bot­tom of — well, what ex­actly? The mo­tion doesn’t make the goal clear.

If it’s to de­ter­mine whether there are flaws in state crim­i­nal jus­tice law and that those flaws, rather than county screw-ups, are jeop­ar­diz­ing our safety, and if the com­mis­sion some­how is able to do a level of anal­y­sis that so far has eluded the county, then by all means it should pro­ceed. We should never be afraid to find out the truth. As long as it’s the whole truth. And noth­ing but the truth.

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